Thursday, April 21, 2016

Masefield on Melville

John Edward Masefield in 1916

Part II of "The Sea Writers" offers a fine appreciation of Herman Melville by John Masefield (1878-1967). Transcribed below from the London Daily News - Saturday, 20 August 1904; found at The British Newspaper Archive. Also at Google News, as reprinted (without credit to Masefield) in the Boston Evening Transcript - August 29, 1904.


(By J. Masefield.)

Herman Melville, one of the two excellent writers that America has produced, was born in New York City on the 1st of August, 1819. The same year gave birth to Walt Whitman, the second of the aforementioned two, and to James Russell Lowell, author of the Biglow Papers. Melville’s father, Allan, was merchant of the Empire City, who passed his evenings with old books, chiefly metaphysical, in the library of his home, now long destroyed, in the suburb of Greenwich village, now a populous, noisy, and rather mean quarter of the city. He was a travelled man, this American merchant, and came of good stock, so that his little son grew among cultured people, and heard strange tales, throughout his childhood, of the sea and ships, and of the seaports far away, and of the sailors, bronzed and earringed, whom he saw by the West-street saloons. Especially did he hear tales of Liverpool, that most magical of seaports, for his father had been thither in a sailing ship, and had brought back one or two books, with engravings in them, representing the docks, or St. Nicholas Church, or Bidston Tower, which the young Herman would pore upon for hours. I do not know whether they determined him to go to sea, for a New York boy has many calls to salt water without looking for them in cheap engravings. But it is certain that they left a strange impression on him, as though, in some other life, he had lived amid those scenes, and known them as man knows his home. When he did go to sea (and that going had some elements of "running away" about it), it was a Liverpool-bound vessel, as "able" seaman (surely his biographers mean "ordinary ”), in the year 1837, when he was eighteen years of age. 

"Hungering for the Sea.”

On his return to America he stayed ashore for while, making precarious living as a school teacher, and subduing refractory pupils with his fists. In 1840 Dana published his "Two Years Before the Mast,” a book which set Melville hungering for the sea (it will seem strange to a landsman, but such was the effect it had), and led to his second voyage a year later. He sailed from "good old Nantucket" in a whale ship called the Acushnet, which name Melville has shortened into Dolly. Life on board a whale ship is at all times horrible, but off the Horn it must be more horrible than elsewhere. Melville was a forecastle hand, the Dolly was leaky old tub, and her captain a "Down-East Johnny-Cake.” They tumbled round the Horn together, in such ice and green water as one may picture, and arrived in time, short handed, ill found, and discontented, in the warm cruising grounds of the South Pacific. Here the Dolly visited the port, or haven, of Nukahiva, in the Marquesas Islands, in order to refit and to ship fruit and natives. Melville had had as much whaling as he needed at the time, and, therefore, took the opportunity of stealing ashore with a friend. With great difficulty they contrived to cross that part of the island in which they might have been discovered. They penetrated to a hidden valley, inhabited by cannibals, where dusky warriors made them captives, and guarded them, though kindly, for several months. Melville’s imprisonment was longer than that of Bob, his shipmate; but escaped at length, after a bloody fight, on board an Australian whaling barque, short-handed as usual, whose captain had heard of white prisoners among the natives, and had hoped to ship them.

A Charming Sea-Gipsy.

Melville did not stay very long with his deliverer, but seems to have "gone among the islands,” a charming sea-gipsy, for rather more than a year. Afterwards shipped as a top-man on board the American frigate United States, then an old ship, which 30 years before had taken H.M.S. Macedonian from the English. He sailed round the Horn in her, touching at Rio de Janeiro, and arrived at Boston in 1844. He spent a year or two ashore, writing “Typee,” the story of his life among the canibals, which was published in New York and London in 1846. It had a wide sale in both countries, so that he felt justified in devoting himself to a life of letters. He married a Miss Shaw, a Massachusetts lady, in 1847, and lived for a while at Boston, afterwards moving to New York, where he obtained employment in the Customs. He went round the Horn in his brother’s ship in 1860, in order to lecture at San Francisco. Being a married man, he took no part in the Civil War, saving the utterance of various poems. He lived to a happy, quiet, old age among his books and etchings and pleasant literary friends, and died at New York in 1891, aged a little over seventy-two.

His Books.

His writings are like nothing else in the language, for they express a nature strangely rare, which lived strangely, and came to strange flower. He has been compared to George Borrow, but it will not do to push the parallel too far, for Borrow’s prose, at its best, is like a picture by Crome—simple, manly, and full of broad light and blowing wind. Melville’s prose, at its best, is something which I cannot estimate, for it takes one from the common world to some rarer place, where strange seas are breaking, strange blossoms growing on the trees, and strange folk talking wisdom in the sun. His books may be divided into two classes—the reminiscent and the imaginative—and both classes have their admirers. In the one class are "Redburn,” the story of his boyish voyage to Liverpool; "Typee,” the story of his life among the cannibals; "Omoo,” the tale of his life in the islands; and "White Jacket,” his life in the American Navy. Of these, "Typee" and "Omoo" are the most charming, and I doubt if anyone has read them without longing to be on blue water, on some reeling fabric of a ship, swaying in, under white strained sails, to some sweet coral island’s haven. Personally, I am very fond of parts of "Redburn,” though one must know New York and the haunted sailor-town of Liverpool to appreciate that gentle story thoroughly. "White Jacket" is an excellent piece of work, telling of a strange kind of life, now extinct, as it was lived on a strange kind of ship, now gone. It is the best book on that old sailor life; and perhaps one should not read Marryat, nor Chamier, nor Lord Dundonald until one has "White Jacket" and a few pages Smollett at one’s fingers’ ends.

The Best Sea Book In English.

In the other class of his writings are his best book, "Moby Dick,” and his worst book, "Mardi,” which latter, I imagine, few have ever read through. It is written in a fantastic, fanciful, tentative manner which aims high, as one can see, but is too boyish and too wayward to be readable. When he wrote it he was playing with his material, trying to learn his art. It is written in exactly the inspired boy style, and has all the folly, but yet a little of the beauty, and much of the eagerness, of youth. "Moby Dick" shows us what the same writer could do when he had developed his instrument, and it is not too much to say that that noble story is the best sea book in the English language. Of its quality as prose I hope to speak elsewhere and greater length, but I cannot close this article without testifying, however briefly, to the lofty beauty of its story. In that wild, beautiful romance Herman Melville seems to have spoken the very secret of the sea, and to have drawn into his tale all the magic, all the sadness, all the wild joy of many waters. It stands quite alone; quite unlike any book known to me. It strikes a note which no other sea writer has ever struck. And when, in one unforgetable chapter, his crew of old sailors gathers on the fo’c’s’le to talk by the light of the moon of life, and man, and the sorrows of man’s making, he rises to a pitch of mournful beauty such as one might find in Webster, in Middleton, or some other Elizabethan, if not in Shakespeare himself. One may say of "Moby Dick" what Melville in that tale says of the ship which bears his characters. One may call it "A noble tale, but a most melancholy; all noble things are touched with that.” --London Daily News - Saturday, 20 August 1904
Examining the high regard for Melville in London, early in the 19th century (before the centennial year 1919), Hershel Parker observes of Masefield that
"Not all his early tributes to Melville have been located." --Melville Biography: An Inside Narrative
This is one of those early tributes. Masefield referred explicitly to his first Melville notices, claiming due credit for early promotion of Melville in England, in a 1921 letter to Florence Lamont:
As to have I read Moby Dick, if you were in range, I'd fling something at you for that.

I read Moby Dick before I was 18 years old. I wrote an article on it before I was 25, & had it printed. I was directly responsible for its (the book's) being reprinted in this country on one occasion, & I have twice or three times written about Melville so as to make him known here....--Masefield, Letters to Florence Lamont
Masefield dates the writing of his earliest tribute to Moby-Dick to some time "before I was 25"; that is, before his 25th birthday on June 1, 1903. The "Sea Writers" article transcribed above was published in the London Daily News on August 20, 1904, a few months after Masefield's 26th birthday. Nonetheless, Masefield writes in this 1904 Daily News article of his "hope to speak elsewhere and greater length" about Moby-Dick--so perhaps the article on Moby-Dick that he mentioned to Florence Lamont in 1921 had not yet been published.

The following notice (by Masefield?) appeared in the "Books and Booksellers" column in the London Daily News on Friday, 8 July 1904:
The "New Pocket Library" of Mr. John Lane is a very pleasant series of little volumes to which yet further additions are soon to be made. Two of the most interesting which have recently appeared are Herman Melville's "Typee" and "Omoo," books which are far too seldom read. It is to be hoped that Mr. Lane will add "Moby Dick" and some more of the sea romances of this great romancer. Four volumes of George Borrow, and several of Captain Marryat, go excellently with these.
 Moby Dick in Masefield's A Mainsail Haul

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